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Big Sing Song

Did you catch Sam’s session at the Music Education Expo in Manchester? If you did – thanks for singing along, it was bags of fun!
In case you didn’t we asked Sam to post a few quick thoughts about Big Sing Songs and why picking the right ones matters so much…
When I’m not running Performing Arts etc I wear different hats with different people. As a mentor for Music for Youth and an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals it’s my pleasure to see hundreds if not thousands of performances a year by musicians young and, well… less young, up and down the country.
The most successful performances have a few things in common;
  • They are songs that the performers understand and relate to
  • They are songs that are within the range of the performer’s voices
  • They are songs that are singable in the combination chosen
All of these sound obvious, but let’s unpack them a little bit.
That lyrics should be understood by the performers seems straightforward enough – for younger performers, it doesn’t mean that they need to be simple or basic, but it might involve having a chat about tricky words and explaining what they mean. Relatable lyrics can be more of a challenge – when I heard a 14 year old girl singing Easy Terms from Blood Brothers it was very pretty, it was lovely. But it’s not a pretty, lovely song – it’s a song which is full of trauma and sadness, and it’s the best thing in the world that the 14 year old doesn’t have the experience to express that, so choose a different song. See also a 13 year old boy singing Bring Him Home from Les Miserables – would he really be willing to die for another to live, or can he convince us of that? My favourite example of this is the 8 year old boy singing There are Worse Things I Could Do from Grease.
These performances can be more successful within a full musical, where the performer takes us on a journey with the character and develops an understating for them. But when singing standalone songs, don’t neglect the bit that goes on around the song itself.
That songs are within the range the of the performer’s voice is also important. A lot of songs you hear at big sings and festivals weren’t written to be sung by young people. Even nursery rhymes were designed to be sung to children. So think about the range, think about intervals in the song and listen to the performers. Listen to the quality of the sound. Be aware that too low is just as troubling as too high – maybe even more so. For example, Let It Go has a range of almost two octaves, which is big for younger voices.
Lastly think about songs being singable. Pop songs weren’t designed to be sung by hundreds of people at once. They’re full of wibbles and idiosyncrasies which are particular to the performer. Often, the basic melody that is written is transformed in recording and performance. The challenge with a choir – be that a choir of 10 or a choir of 1,000 – is making it consistent, especially when people have listened to their favourite version, which might not always be the same version. Add to that the processing that voices go through before getting on to a published recording and trying to recreate that sound in person isn’t a fair battle.
All of these thoughts are, of course, very general. You know your choir, but maybe this is a useful checklist of things to consider when choosing repertoire. Keep in mind that the songs that singers enjoy listening to aren’t always the best songs for them to sing.
At Performing Arts etc we tackle these challenges for Big Sings by working with groups who are taking part to write songs that will be performed in the gig. Be they songs about the Olympics, songs about the Venue or songs about the schools taking part. Young people create lyrics that they understand, they come up with melodies that come out of the rhythm and inflection of speech and sit within their range. Add to that the power of hearing hundreds or thousands of your peers singing songs that you’ve written and you have a great project!
If you want to know more, get in touch! We’d love to hear your favourite Big Sing Songs.

Sam Dunkley is the founder of Performing Arts etc